Spiritual Junk Food

We are seven days away from an election that has dominated the national consciousness for over a year. An election mired in sexual assault allegations, email security, racism and xenophobia, and even some violence. Not only that, but last week water protectors in North Dakota were violently removed from sacred land facing destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. We have continued to witness police brutality against African Americans, the steady stream of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, and the assault on Mosul. This is just a handful of the messages and stories we are consuming daily, and if I’m being honest, I’m starting to get spiritual gut-rot.

Honestly, it is exhausting to be an informed and concerned citizen. The constant stream of negativity that comes across our Twitter feeds or cable news is simply too much for one person to bear. It feels like we’re being continually pushed down before we’re even able to stand back up. The temptation is to say screw it, walk away, and shut out the world. I have some video games that haven’t been played in ages, maybe I could spend my time trying to kill dragons instead. Sometimes it seems that this tactic might be more productive than trying to engage a world that feels so damn broken.

But, for those of us trying to follow Jesus, this temptation is one that we need to resist. We cannot simply exit the world emotionally without also turning our back on Christ. In July at St. John’s Abbey, our Oblate Retreat was led by Sister Christian Morris. Sister Morris asked us to consider where we could see Christ dying in our midst. This struck me as a very powerful lens through which to see the world, and the seemingly hopeless litany of tragedy and evil that often comes with it. Sister Morris played a video for us that strung together images of Syria, Black Lives Matter protests, gun violence, and other tragic narratives that we have encountered over the last year. As the video ended she reminded us, however, that the story doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, asking us to stand in hope of resurrection. It reminded me of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon “It may be Friday now, but Sundays coming…”

Now that’s all well and good, and I do think that this is the challenge and the duty of the Christian; to proclaim resurrection to a world that proclaims death, but sometimes that duty feels just too damn difficult. While the grace of God can swallow whole the horror of this world, sometimes as people, we just get tired. And often we find that our spiritual health works an awful lot like our bodily health. When you get tired and run down, your spiritual immune system weakens, and all that toxic sludge starts to eat away at you. You begin to believe in the hopelessness, even calling it realism. Apathy starts to take the place of empathy, and before you know it, you’ve retreated from the world completely. Often we don’t even realize this has happened until we’re already bogged down in it.

Joan Chittister says it perfectly in her book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily:

“…without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray. Eventually the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing…And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer”. **

I think this is where Benedictine spirituality has a lot of wisdom. For Benedict, the monastery is governed by the rhythm of the Work of God, the Liturgy of the Hours. This constant and daily prayer and recitation, along with the monk’s daily tasks, grounds the community in the present moment. It reminds the individual that there is something greater than the fear and negativity one might encounter, and it reminds the community that only together can we challenge the prevailing narrative. This is what Benedict is saying in his introduction, “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to (God) most earnestly to bring it to perfection” *. By centering ourselves first in the spiritual well-being of our own person, and then in the community, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or rather, the light within the darkness of the tunnel. As Chittister said, it reminds us why we are doing what it is we are doing.

I have found this to be true from my own experience. When I begin to feel weakened by the stress of my own life, and overwhelmed by the negativity and tragedy of the world, the first thing that I often neglect is my spiritual practice and the small daily tasks that need to be completed. This often snowballs, and before I know it I’ve binge watched some show on Netflix, the dishes are stacking up, laundry is out of control, and the thought of a time of silence makes me shudder. I completely disengage from the world and from myself. I ignore the news in favor of entertainment, and I neglect silence in favor of distraction. This is spiritual junk food, and as I said before, gut-rot is imminent. I know what it is that I need. I know that I need some good old, organic, free range, spiritual discipline. I need to ground myself in the rhythms of prayer, and the discipline of my daily tasks. This is the practice that plants me firmly in the moment, and rejects the temptation to try and predict the future based solely on the crushing negativity of the world around me. I think this is what hope looks like; a lived life in the face of a world that says life isn’t worth living. As stupid as it might sound, every time I light my candle for prayer, or finish cleaning the dishes, or take the dog for a walk, I feel just a little bit more hopeful. It reminds me that life is good, and re-energizes me to proclaim resurrection in the face of death. Spiritual burnout is inevitable if we are not grounded in the present, in the daily.

For myself, I am rededicating myself to the discipline of daily work and prayer. I intend to spend this week tidying up, domestically and spiritually. I will proclaim resurrection first in my own heart, so that from a place of fullness I can proclaim it to the world. There is so much happening in our world that requires our attention, and the work of our hands. Let’s not neglect our own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Let us act out of a place of wholeness, grounded in the present moment. No more spiritual junk food. It just makes you sick.

 

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily” (Seriously, this is one of the greatest resources our their concerning Benedictine Spirituality)

The Jesus Movement

I was lucky enough this morning to attend an event sponsored by the Kaleo Center called “Examining This Moment Through Movement Eyes”. Beth Zemsky and Dave Mann facilitated the conversation, and focused on the ways in which we understand social movements, and how we might determine where we find our current movement in context. It was a fascinating conversation that beautifully illustrated the movement of movements. That’s right, movements move. Often these movements transition in quantifiable cycles, and it is possible to track movements as they cross various thresholds that seems to be common in all social movements. Beth asked us to envision the movement of movements as a wave. There is energy even before the wave begins to break, it rises from the ocean and peaks before descending back towards the surface, then begins to rumble again. Much of our exercise this morning was to attempt to discern our location on this wave. In Beth’s example the wave of social movements begins by framing and clarifying a worldview, then as movements rise they begin to develop infrastructure and transformation goals. The peak of the wave is mass mobilization. As the movements begin to descend the wave they often begin to professionalize roles that once were happening in the streets, this then transitions into reactive organizing, and finally movement maintenance. Using this metaphor, I think many of us can see ways in which the movements we have encountered or been a part of track neatly along this trajectory. I began to think about efforts for racial justice, economic equity, environmental stewardship, and the fight for LGBTQ rights. But my mind quickly went to another movement. The Jesus movement.

Ok, I know, that whole Jesus movement jargon is a little overplayed, and can seem a little hokey. But, I think it is an accurate moniker for this thing that began with the ministry of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. I wondered, as I listened to Beth and Dave explain the nature of social movements, what if those of us who try our damnedest to follow Jesus began to see this faith through movement eyes. What if we could locate ourselves on the wave of social movement movement? What if we discover that we are not where we think we are? What if we find that, in fact, we are snuffing out the rumbling needed to push the wave skyward?

I can begin to see the Jesus movement as it moves along this wave. There is no better example of worldview clarifying than the Sermon on the Mount. It’s important here to clarify that this framework is not a set of issues, but a narrative about how the world might look. The Gospel of Matthew illustrates this beautifully;

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” *

Here is the framework (There is a lot more, so check it out) for the Jesus movement. This sets the stage for all the ways in which the movement will engage with the world. We see this lived out in the healing ministry of Jesus, in the feeding of the five thousand, and ultimately the death of Jesus. It is this framework that begins to develop the collective identity of the people who follow the fellow from Nazareth, and it is this framework that will help to carry the movement on after Jesus is no longer present.

We might imagine that our next location on the wave of social movement movement begins at Pentecost. It is that strange tale of tongues of fire and the many spiritual gifts that begins to frame the movement’s infrastructure. We are introduced to the community model of the Jesus movement in the Acts of the Apostles, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” *. Here the Jesus movement takes shape in the form of collective engagement with the aforementioned worldview. The goals of this movement seem to be primarily relational; feeding the hungry, and sharing the economic burden of the community. The movement continues onward and upward.

The peak of this Jesus movement seems to me to be the slipperiest moment to pin down. As the “good news” continued to spread across nations, states, and continents, those people known as Christians began to carve out their own space in a culture dominated by state-sponsored paganism. When Christians refused to sacrifice to Caesar, or when public perception of the Jesus movement skewed too sacrilegious, persecution by the authorities became a possibility. An argument could be made that Christians were mobilized in an effort to create space to peacefully worship without fear of repercussion, though someone much more informed than I will have to make that argument. I am much more persuaded that the mass mobilization, the peak, of the Jesus movement is to be found in that small and simple community recounted in the book of Acts. I’ll have to think some more about this.

Our next move seems much clearer to me. The professionalization of the Jesus movement seems to have begun when the Church accepted a position of power under the rule of Constantine. This marked the end of the small and simple, mobilized energy of the Jesus movement, and the beginning of the Institutional Church (I realize that Church history is much more complicated than this. But, for this little thought experiment, let’s just agree to play along.). Shane Claiborne, in his book Jesus for President, illustrates the Church’s slip into reactive organizing, “…as the love affair between church and empire grew more intimate, the emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of the empire, making it a crime not to be a Christian. That’s when things got even messier. The first recorded instance of Christians killing pagans occurred shortly after…” **. Once Christianity had successfully asserted its power, the movement (if it could still be called that at this point) began the necessary maintenance needed to sustain its position and power. It would be easy for us to argue that this is the situation we find the Jesus movement in today. Plodding along at the bottom of the wave, asserting its authority in an effort to maintain its perceived power. But, I wonder if something else might be at work.

I’m wondering if the Jesus movement is once again rumbling below the surface, preparing to birth the next wave of its movement movement. Phyllis Tickle often spoke of the Church’s “rummage sale” that seems to happen every 500 years. In her book The Great Emergence, Tickle discusses three consequences of this cyclical upheaval; (1) a “more vital form of Christianity…” emerges, (2) the dominant expression of the Jesus movement is reconstituted into “two new creatures”, and (3) the movement spreads further than it has previously ***. I think Phyllis Tickle’s assessment corresponds well with this idea of viewing the scope of Christianity through movement eyes. The language of emergent or emergence Christianity, which Tickle describes, has already lost much of its potency, but it seems to me that the “emergent movement” was simply the beginnings of the Jesus movement’s attempt to re-spark the energy needed to clarify its worldview in this new context. Maybe, maybe not. But, what if?

I think there is some wisdom for those of us who seek to follow Jesus to reframe our experience with Christianity through movement eyes. Movements are transformational, institutions seek to preserve. If a truly transformational Jesus movement is starting to rumble once again, then we will need to begin the hard work of discerning the values and strategies of the movement that will carry it forward in this new context, and building intentional and appropriate infrastructure. We will need to know ourselves, and that means we will need to, in the words of Beth Zemsky, “imagine the WE”. I get incredibly excited at the possibility of re-energized and re-focused Jesus movement. One that embraces the framework of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and seeks to mobilize around a relational community of disciples. I am hopeful that as the Church we can discern the narrative of this movement, and begin to create and support a space for profound transformation. And, if I’m honest, when I listen closely, I think I can hear it happening already. Thanks be to God!

*NRSV

**Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

***Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.

Belonging

I’ve been reflecting lately on the importance of community in the health of the individual. Finding myself in a time of transition between a number of communities I have been confronted with the loss of community, or at least the perceived loss of community, and with the uncomfortable task of trying to establish new connections in new communities. At the same time, I have tried to remind myself of the vitally important connections that remain even when the structure of community as I have experienced it fades away. It’s exhausting. I long for that community structure that offered so much reprieve from all the other stressors in my life. The comfortable one that I knew and loved. I can feel its absence like a lost loved one. I suppose in essence I am mourning. It was this sense of mourning that really got me thinking about community as an aspect of spiritual health.

Benedictine spirituality is founded on the principle of community. The Rule was written to offer guidance to monasteries in the 5th & 6th centuries, and Benedict’s first chapter is explicit that the monk that lives with other monks in a monastery is to be preferred to the lonely, itinerant monk. The subsequent 72 chapters illustrate the ways in which monks are to live in community. The monks are instructed to eat together, to work together, and to pray together. They are to be obedient to each other and to the abbot, and to seek to outdo the other in mercy, humility, and service. It is in these acts of community that the monks are brought into ever closer communion with God, illustrating the immanence of God in midst of community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” *.

This is why most of us go to church. Because we have experienced the closeness of God most intimately in the gathering of people around ritual, music, and fellowship. I know for myself, the worshipping community, at its best, has been the place where I find comfort, support, and challenge. It’s been a place where I can safely allow my vulnerabilities to be seen and still find acceptance and love. At its worst, it’s been a place where vulnerability is seen as inconvenient or inappropriate. Where competition and divisiveness are allowed to interrupt the stated purpose for gathering in the first place.

It is this diversity of possible experiences that can make the loss of community so anxiety producing. We are not guaranteed a community that will support us. We are not promised the same level of trust and mercy that we may have encountered in previous communities. It’s like breaking up with a person you were in love with, and then comparing all subsequent suitors to that one who made you feel so safe and cared for. It’s a difficult process that many of us have to face. We lose and leave communities for so many reasons. Maybe we move, or get a new job. Maybe we are called to a new community, or perhaps the community is simply unable to gather anymore. For whatever reason, this loss is something we all face. And for many of us, this loss is the first time we may realize how vitally important our communities are to our spiritual and mental health.

I wonder if so many of us ignore the importance of community because of how radically connected we are every second of every day. At any moment we are able to communicate with many thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat. We often find some level of value in the number of “friends” we can accumulate on our various social media platforms. Now, there are plenty of good arguments for the veracity and effectiveness of online communities, but I wonder if those online communities that truly create a sense of belonging and support are the minority, rather than majority experience. For myself, I often think that my “online community” offers the appearance of community, just enough for me to neglect the more intensive work of building lasting community relationships face to face. This may postpone that feeling of loss, but eventually I find myself realizing that my Twitter followers and Facebook friends cannot offer the kind of belonging I need to experience that closeness that drew me to community in the first place.

In the midst of thisexperience of loss, and this entrance into new community, I have been especially grateful for those relationships that are the foundation of my belonging. My primary community is that experience of belonging and acceptance with my wife. When it seems that all other connections fall away, or are unable to fit within the busyness of daily life, I am fortunate to have the nurturing and loving belonging in the community of marriage. This is where all of my experiences of community have their beginning. I am grateful also for those other relationships that are able to survive and continue in the face of transition, busyness, and time apart. Without these experiences of belonging, the loss of a particular community would be simply too heavy to bear.

This desire for community, and spiritual community in particular, is built in to the faith tradition I claim as my own. In the person of Jesus, God revealed God’s relational essence. Jesus is simply not interested in claiming a position of above and beyond, but rather claims a position of among and within. Jesus reveals God to the people by intimately connecting in community. It is the foundational structure of the Jesus movement. This structure is confirmed again and again by those traditions that react to a Christianity that loses touch with this primary value by refocusing again on the community. Monasticism, Anabaptists and Quakers, emergence Christianity, and New Monasticism. There is a sense that this return to community is healing in and of itself, and this seems to me to be absolutely true.

It is this belief that has challenged me to push through the awkwardness of establishing new relationships and new communities. I know the healing that can come from a safe and accepting community, and I acknowledge that, for myself, I simply cannot be without it. I am hopeful that I will find belonging in a lasting and loving community, and I continue to pray that we all might find this belonging. Find that community affirms and supports you. That challenges you, and asks you to challenge yourself. Do not settle for accumulating followers, and don’t let the loss of one community prevent you from seeking another. We all need belonging, we need community. Thanks be to God.

 

*NRSV